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Iraqis outraged at release of tribal leader linked to thousands of deaths

MAHAWIL, Iraq—Iraqi Shiites swarmed the U.S. military internment camp holding Mohammed Jawad An Neifus back in April, keen to seize and kill him. They hold the tribal leader responsible for the deaths of thousands of Shiites buried in mass graves at Mahawil.

At the time, U.S. officers held the bloodthirsty crowd back with the promise that An Neifus would be tried and justice served.

Now, news that Saddam Hussein's most loyal tribal leader was mistakenly freed after convincing a U.S. interrogator that he was a mere tomato farmer, has incensed the city.

Local Shiites are talking about "a revolution" against the Americans who let them down, Mayor Moayad Ali Khlaif said. Already some carry signs reading "American Troops, Go Home."

According to a U.S. Central Command statement on the matter, U.S. Marines arrested An Neifus and three of his sons on April 26. Three days later, the Marines moved him to the Bucca internment facility at Umm Qasr in southern Iraq.

He underwent a military court screening on May 18, Centcom said, but "there was nothing unusual about the story he told that alerted the JAG to his true identity. Therefore, he was cleared for release."

The significance of the release only became known when Marines sought to visit the prisoner last week, said U.S. Marines First Lt. Ernest Adams.

"Somebody messed up," Adams said. "He told them he was a tomato farmer"

Mayor Khlaif was incredulous. "It's a mistake? That's hard to believe," Khlaif said.

"All the people in this town, all the people in the world, they know An Neifus is guilty. It was a shock to people to know that An Neifus is free. They are very angry, and only God can save us when they are angry."

An Neifus, who is about 80 years old, was head of the Albu Alwan tribe. Saddam showed his appreciation to An Neifus with gifts of money and cars, like a 1991 Mercedes An Neifus received after a public statement promising to "kill the sons of bitches" who were rising in opposition to Saddam.

An Neifus was referring to Shiites in southern Iraq and Kurds in the north who had rebelled against Saddam after President George H. Bush urged them to "take matters into their own hands."

The regime fought back, killing thousands of rebels. Iraqis say An Neifus was paid a bounty for every person he killed. The dead and missing include men, women and children.

Some say An Neifus shot people himself; others say he was primarily responsible for rounding up victims and bringing them to the mass graves. One of the graves is said to be on his property.

In a press release, U.S. Central Command said the military takes full responsibility for the error and the incident is under investigation. It's upped from $25,000 to $50,000 its reward for his recapture.

"If I can catch him, I'll eat him, starting with his throat," said Noor Mehson al Ethary, 70, grabbing his own prominent Adam's apple.

On Saturday, al Ethary was at a mass grave site searching among the dirt-coated plastic bags of clothing and identification papers for signs of his nephew, Aed Abdullah, who was 38 when he disappeared. Abdullah left behind three daughters and a six-month old son.

The boy, Mohamad, is now 13, and he joined in Saturday's search, a creased black and white photo of his father in his hand.

"Why did they kill him? Did this face deserve to be killed?" al Ethary asked, gesturing to the photo as he started to cry. "He did not deserve to die. He did not deserve to die. An Neifus deserves to die."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.